(MARVEL’S WHAT IF…? premieres on Disney+ August 11th)
WHAT IF…? is the easiest thing for Marvel to pitch and the easiest for them to get wrong. It’s a ten-episode animated series about the multiverse, made possible by the events of LOKI, where The Watcher dispassionately guides us through potential realities. With three episodes screened for critics in advance, Marvel proves that fears of mismanagement are once again pointless. WHAT IF…? is the work of a studio so familiar with their property the result feels like freestyle jazz.
In the first episode, Sharon Carter takes the role of Captain America (or, more accurately, Captain Carter) when Steve Rogers is gravely wounded in a Nazi attack. It’s easily the best episode of the early season, featuring stellar voice work from a returning Hayley Atwell and showcasing just how robbed we were when AGENT CARTER was unjustly canceled some years back.
The second episode takes us to the far reaches of the galaxy, where, instead of Peter Quill, it is T’Challa who is abducted by Yondu and his Ravagers. Years later, Star-Lord is a beacon of justice and compassion across the galaxy, a kind of intergalactic Robin Hood. Featuring the last performance from the incomparable Chadwick Boseman, the episode turns out as the most touching and bittersweet of the bunch. Even as it’s the funniest, as well.
In the final episode screened in advance, Nick Fury races against time as Avengers candidates begin dying one by one before they’re even recruited. The tightly paced storyline is fun and exemplifies the potential of the What If-scenarios the best, but it also suffers from the brisk, barely half-hour pacing of the show. If anything, this one could do with more room to breathe.
Gorgeously animated, WHAT IF…? feels like Marvel at its loosest in a while. With the burden of long-term plotting on the shoulders of the upcoming Phase 4 films, the Disney+ series gets to concentrate on having fun. As a result, the episodes fly by, with immaculate action scenes showcasing stellar directing from a new potential group of Marvel heavy-hitters. If, like Disney, Marvel is using their animated division to scout out new talent, they’ve already hit a jackpot.
This is especially evident in the first two episodes, featuring some of the biggest setpieces of the lot. Captain Carter taking on an entire armored car platoon in the heart of Berlin is a moment fit for the biggest possible screen. As is a climactic fight inside the labyrinthian depths of Knowhere, which comes riddled with easter eggs for diehard fans.
But all this fun does lead to hurriedness, and most of the episodes feel truncated as a result. Just as you feel like the story is settling in for a good adventure, the whole thing ends before you know it. It’s not that the pacing is bad, necessarily, but that the Marvel universe has grown so immense in the last decade that a mere thirty minutes can’t contain it. Especially when it’s breaking down everything we’ve known during that time.
In the same way as LOKI, WHAT IF…? does overcome this hurdle by sheer charm alone. Every moment feels earned, and each new tease of what’s potentially to come is tantalizing. Yes, most of it is heavy on the fanservice, but after sticking with the intricate plotting for this long I’d argue it’s well deserved.
With a second season already a certainty, WHAT IF…? promises fans hours of pure Marvel bliss, especially as it allows us, as watchers ourselves, to question just how different our favorite heroes and villains could be if just a few things had gone another way.